How your food is kept safe: Inside Lynchburg's food safety lab

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) Before your food makes it to the shelf here in Virginia, someone has to check it out. Not just once, but multiple times. From prep to packaging, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has your back.

There are four labs across the commonwealth that play a part in inspecting the food you eat. One of those labs is in Lynchburg.

Off a major highway, tucked behind trees, is a building many don't know exists. Inside, the work affects everyone.

“Our job is to monitor the dairies and the production facilities before the food or the milk ever makes it to the shelf,” said Dr. John Moody, Director of the Lynchburg Regional Animal Health Lab.

The lab in Lynchburg is divided into three parts for food inspection. We start with dairy.

“Milk testing is very important it's one of the most regulated commodities there is,” said Brittany Abbott who handles milk testing for the lab. “For good reason, it keeps us all safe.”

Milk is analyzed for its percentage of fat, tested to identify any pathogens, and then processed through a machine that is one of five in the country. It measures bacteria using a laser.

They test about 20,000 samples of milk a year, making sure what you buy is safe. But that's not all, they handle ice-cream too

Next up, is your meat.

Christine McCoy stands in her lab holding a bag of ground beef. She is testing for E. coli.

“I cut it up and I put it in a bag with enrichment broth and it incubates overnight,” said McCoy. “And it doesn't smell very good the next day.”

Producers send all types of samples to be checked out.

Fluff samples, drag swab samples, blood, meat, the list goes on. They then put it through a machine to see if it tests positive for bacteria. In this case, they were testing chicken for salmonella.

“This one here is positive so you will see here it has a curve here called an ‘s-curve’,” said McCoy.

That is where our final lab comes in.

“Now we're walking into bacteriology and this is where we confirm some of our positive food safety testing,” said Kelly Dietz, who oversees all three labs.

Here, they grow bacteria found in the previous lab to see if it really is salmonella. Shelley O’Brien is in charge of this portion of the lab.

“When it's alive that's when it can cause disease,” said O’Brien. “So by growing the salmonella on the plate that shows that the organism is alive and confirms that it's a true positive.”

If it's true, they have a procedure where they sound the alarm and let the right people know before the food can be purchased.

"Those positive samples, if they occur, they occur before the food has made it to the market,” said Dr. Moody. “So we're catching it before it happens."

Last year out of the more than 30,000 tests ran, they had only two true positive tests. One for E. coli and one for salmonella.

“I don't think anything gets by,” said Moody. WDBJ7 asked what makes him so confident. “We've got good training. We take our jobs seriously.”

With all of the preparation, tests, smells, they know what's at stake.

“So much of our work is about the minutia of growing the bacteria,” said O’Brien. “But when you step back and think about the big picture of why we do what we do, detect our results help the community…that's what gives us a lot of satisfaction.”